House of Lies: Jerks Conning Jerks

New TV series often benefit from chance, and of the new shows debuting this midseason, Showtime's House of Lies -- based on the memoir House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time -- may be the most serendipitous of them all. Thanks to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, the public is well aware that corporations, especially financial institutions, are big jerks, and shockingly (shockingly!) in it only for the money. In lieu of coattails, House of Lies has ridden OWS's dreadlocks and tie-dyed skirts in its trailers and other promos, playing up the series' band of modern-day merry men stealing from the rich and sticking it to the one percent.

But latching onto the OWS movement was a bit misleading. The fictional Galweather and Stearn management consultant firm isn't stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Instead, Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) and his team are playing a game of high-risk Three-Card Monty by duping giant corporations into paying for their thousand-dollar sushi bills and strip-club whoring sessions in exchange for information the companies should already know. The trick for Kaan is to make the corporations think they need him, even though he's regurgitating info they already have, obscured by "indecipherable jargon" (his words) and a sense of bloated confidence.

It's a great concept. So why does House of Lies feel so hollow? From a viewer's standpoint, the pilot felt like a pilot. If you watch a lot of television, you know what I mean. There was plenty of unnecessary flash and titties (my 16-year-old self is facepalming over my current self complaining about too many breasts), essentially announcing, "We're on cable!" There was tons of exposition delivered under the guise of hustling and bustling, like a magician trying to get you to look at one hand while the other yanks a rabbit out of a secret compartment. And there was awkward, forced relationship-building between Marty and Jeannie (Kristen Bell), who speak to each other as if they just met.

On an emotional level, we all want to see these guys hoodwink the financial fat cats as retribution for eating all the pie, which they do. But the pilot didn't give us any real sense of what they do with the money besides take shots of Ketel One off strippers' asses. Not exactly a victory for the little people. Marty Kaan (sounds like "con," get it?) is suppose to be our hero, but he's merely a leech who's sustaining his own disgusting wealth by sucking on the fat of CEOs by switching between sycophantic praise and esteem-crushing takedowns like the push-and-pull you get from your bipolar boyfriend/girlfriend. Over the course of the pilot, Marty banged his pill-addicted business rival (who is also, conveniently, his ex-wife), made it rain with a gorgeous stripper on a client's dime, and told his young, sexually confused son that the kid couldn't play Sandy in the school's production of Grease because Marty wanted to, and eventually did, have sex with the mother of a girl who also wants to play Sandy.

But what happened at the very, very end of the pilot gave me a ray of hope. There was a glimmer of change in Marty's eye as he almost asked Jeannie a question about what kind of man he is. Marty's recognition that he's no better than the corporations he's fleecing is going to be the interesting story moving forward, and if the rest of the season explores his internal conflict, things will get better. It's just too bad we didn't see more of his uncertainty in the pilot, because all we were left with was jerks conning jerks.

House of Lies is off to a rough start due to the pilot's emphasis on flashy lifestyles instead complicated characters, but there's a lot of talent in the cast -- and pilots (especially those for half-hour serialized comedies) aren't often indicative of the total package. This is a wait-and-see situation.

– Though he isn't the most righteous of men, Marty Kaan does have charisma, and that's all thanks to Don Cheadle, one of my favorite actors.

– Main characters pausing the action to address the audience works great in high-school comedies (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Parker Lewis Can't Lose), but seeing it in House of Lies is like watching grown-ups play Dance, Dance, Revolution. There's a point on the maturity spectrum where it really should stop.

– It was great to see Anna Camp, who played True Blood's Sarah Newlin (the reverend's wife), again. I guess the lesbian bathroom-stall scene was a plus? And hubba hubba on the stripper in that scene too, right guys?

Follow writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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